To understand autism, we must first understand the brain, the way it develops, and the role it plays in learning. The brain weighs under 3 pounds and is the most complex organ in the body. It is the size of a grapefruit that could easily fit in the palm of your hand. It is divided into different parts, each playing its own role.
By way of introduction, the brain is made of thousands and thousands of miles of blood vessels and includes 5 main parts and 2 hemispheres. The left hemisphere deals with language and math while the right hemisphere handles movement and vision. For the brain to function effectively, both hemispheres must work together. Each part of the brain plays a role in the way it collects information.
Amazingly, the brain never sleeps because each part plays a specific role in the way it collects, transfers, and processes information night when we sleep. It is in fact when we sleep that the brain consolidates all we learned during the day. That is why sleep is so crucial. To get a better idea of how complex the brain is, just compare it to a train station with winding corridors and multiple tracks each taking different routes to different destinations at different times for different reasons.
Let’s take a closer look into the anatomy of the brain is trying to get a better understanding of how it really works. Interestingly, the brain and the spinal cord work together. The spinal cord carries messages it picks up from the 5 senses (seeing, smelling, touching, hearing, and tasting) to the brain and the brain carries these messages to the body through the billions of neurons it is made of. The role of these neurons is none other than to collect, transfer and process the information they receive from the 5 senses.
Amazingly, the brain begins its active role in the womb and continues to develop at an even faster rate after birth and at a breathtaking rate of more than a thousand connections every second. It is these connections between neurons that make learning possible and the stronger these interconnections become, the fastest they transmit messages among themselves and the more we learn.
Let’s take it a step up a notch
The brain goes through various phases of development. By age 3, neurons have reached an astonishing number of over 200 billion. By then, each neuron, individually developed a minimum of 15, 000 connections between themselves. Paradoxically, brain connections are typically far greater in a young child’s brain than they are in the adult brain.
Relatedly, the child’s brain has twice the number of connections that the adult brain. The more connections the brain makes, the faster we learn. This explains why children learn the letters of the alphabet, numbers, colors, shapes, language, all at the same time and at an amazing speed. The richer the environment provided to the child, the greater the stimulation on the brain, the more connections are created, and the more the child learns. On the flip side, because nature does not keep what it does not need, sadly, only the connections that are used actively, survive and become permanent. Alternatively, neurons that are not used effectively before age 21 are naturally eliminated.
One of the best illustrations of this natural loss of neurons is “language”. Did you know, for instance, that we are born with the ability to process sounds from all different languages and therefore to be multilingual? Sadly, as we saw earlier on, the brain does not keep what it does not use. Therefore, for instance, a baby who was born in an English-speaking home naturally learns English and only develops fluency in English if English is the only language the child is exposed to. As early as 6 months of age, the child naturally loses the ability to speak any of the other languages he was born with the ability to learn and speak if used. Ironically, later on in life, we sadly spend months and months learning a foreign language we were born with the ability to speak fluently with the right exposure.
To summarize, the more we learn, the more connections between neurons develop and the more these connections remain active and stable.
Knowledge comes from the 5 senses. Without the 5 senses, we would know nothing. This is because the role of the senses is to sense (feel, hear, taste, smell and see) and to transmit what they sense to the brain for interpretation. This amazingly occurs within milliseconds. The brain translates the language of the senses into its own language so we can hear, feel, smell, taste, and see.
What we do know now that we did not know before is that, if we really think about it, is that without the partnership between the senses and the brain, we would not know anything. A sobering thought, isn’t it? The information that comes to the 5 senses enters the brain through electrical impulses that come from the neurons that fire along each specific sensory pathway. The role of these neurons, for instance, is to process these electrical impulses into what the brain recognizes as being a sound, a taste, a sight, a feeling, etc. Sight, hearing and vision are the senses that are the most involved in learning.
Sadly, this partnership falls apart when the communication between the brain and the senses goes wrong. Anecdotally, when this occurs, the brain misinterprets the messages that come from the senses. As you can well imagine, this affects our ability to learn, to move in space, to relate to others, to process information, to interpret sounds, movement, social interaction, social interaction, etc.
The major role of special education in school is to help students whose brain is different to overcome, or to compensate for the way their brain misinterprets sounds, smells, tastes, touch and sights. Touch, for instance, is complicated in more ways than one because it does not involve only one sensory organ, it is all over the body. The way individuals sense is divided into 2 general groups. Individuals who are described to be “sensory-seekers” who experience little input and who need to over-touch, over-smell, etc. They can never get enough thrills because they cannot find their body in space. These are the individuals who need to “over-touch”, “over smell”, etc. and who often end up, inadvertently, breaking up things because of the pressure they apply to everything they touch. On the flip side are the sensory “fleers” also called “avoiders” who cover their ears or elope from loud places and who do not tolerate schools’ fire drills and who flee from sensations. These are the children who are described to be “overresponsive” to sounds, touch, etc. these are the individuals who hide under the table, etc.
To summarize and using sounds as an example, sounds produce vibrations that are first collected by the outer ear and then passed on to the brain. The brain decodes and interprets these vibrations. When the brain misinterprets the vibrations, it receives from the ear to be louder than they truly are, it causes the individual to over-react in a manner that can be viewed to be inappropriate. This is the child who elopes because of his discomfort with an environment or the child who covers his ears at the sound of a fire engine.
Ok, fine but why do I need to know all that and what does it have to do with my child being autistic?
We are almost there. One last thing you also need to know about the brain and perhaps the most important of it all is that the brain is a physical organ which means that is extremely vulnerable. Anything that goes wrong will affect the complex network of billions of neurons we described earlier and provoke a devastating chain reaction that will compromise its ability to perform the functions it is intended to perform. Let us keep in mind, as we saw earlier, that neurons communicate with the rest of the body by sending messages that must be interpreted by the brain to be understood. So, again, when something goes wrong, the brain no longer can communicate effectively with the rest of the body. Autism is a neurobiological disorder that affects the normal functioning of the brain.
Autism makes the integration of the various parts of the brain, difficult. It affects the brain’s ability to process the information it gets from the 5 senses, as we just saw. Although we do know the type of disturbance it causes and how it affects development, what we still do not know is what affects the wiring of the brain and causes it to not function as planned. Sadly, any difference in the “wiring” of the brain, no matter how subtle it may be, has a major impact on learning and communicating. What we also know is that specific areas of the brain develop at different times within a window of opportunity. This means that if some regions of the brain do not develop on time, it becomes extremely difficult to learn a specific skill. As we saw earlier on, the brain does not keep what it does not use. This also applies to language development. What is important to note is that we learn what we know by communicating and socializing with others and by interacting with them. Therefore, it is easy to understand why autistic individuals who do not socialize and do not show any interest towards others, struggle with language. In fact, it is theorized that if autistic individuals struggle with social interactions, it is because there are too many rules to follow. Eye contact is a basic standard, focusing on the topic of discussion, problem-solving, and putting ourselves, in the position of others to empathize, are just a few rules one must use to be an effective communicator.
Sadly, if for some reason, a child does not naturally pick up the language that is spoken at home on time, it will become extremely difficult for this child to develop language later in life. That is because language involves several mechanisms that work at the same time. For instance, it takes time and practice to first learn speech sounds and then to combine these sounds to make words. Then, comes grammar, another set of rules that must be respected. First, we learn how to communicate, and then comes “language”. One can communicate without speaking. The use of sign language, for instance, is a form of communication that does not involve speaking. A baby crying is a form of “communication” because, by crying, the child sends a clear message to the parent that he/she needs something far before the baby is able to make words.
As we saw earlier on, ASD stands for “Autism Spectrum Disorder”. This means that autistic individuals present with different degrees of disabling difficulties. This is because the brain is so complex that when it is disorganized, it is unlikely to produce the same deficits in all autistic individuals. Remember that connections between brain cells that are not used are naturally eliminated. According to research, when these lost connections are not pruned out, the surplus of these connections affects the functioning of the brain.